Red meat is the meat of mammals, which is normally red when raw.
There are many conflicting claims about the impact of red meat on human health. Some believe it can cause harm, while others suggest it’s not associated with disease or other ill effects.
Plus, there are ethical and environmental factors to consider (though this article doesn’t dive into those conversations).
This article reviews the evidence on the health effects of red meat, including possible benefits and downsides of incorporating it into your regular diet.
Before discussing the health effects of red meat, it’s important to distinguish between different types of meat.
Red meat comes from mammals and is named such because it is red when raw.
Beef, pork, lamb, venison, and boar are examples of red meat. Chicken, turkey, and other meats from fowl (birds) are considered white meats. They’re white when cooked.
Besides what animal it came from, meat can be distinguished by how it’s raised and processed. Here are some key terms to know:
- Conventional meat. Conventional meats are from animals that are usually raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” that confine animals and provide them with grain-based feeds. Beef that is not labeled “organic” or “grass-fed” is likely conventional and from CAFO cows (1).
- Grass-fed meat. This meat comes from cows that graze on grass and forage for their feed. They are not raised in a CAFO.
- Organic meat. To have an organic label, meat must come from animals that are given 100% organic feed and forage and are raised in a way that accommodates grazing and other natural behaviors. They also do not receive antibiotics or hormones (2).
- Processed meats. These products are typically from conventionally raised animals and go through various processing methods, such as curing or smoking. Examples include sausages, hot dogs, and bacon.
- Unprocessed meats. Meats that aren’t cured, smoked, or otherwise heavily processed are typically referred to as unprocessed. That means ground beef and sirloin are considered unprocessed. However, since all meat is processed to some extent to be fit for consumer purchase, the term “unprocessed” really refers to minimally processed meats.
It’s important to make a distinction between different kinds of meat. For example, grass-fed and organic meat may be different from factory-farmed or highly processed meat in terms of health effects.
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There are many ethical and environmental conversations surrounding meat production and consumption. Red meats, like beef, are central to many ethics discussions.
While this article focuses solely on the health effects of eating red meat, you can engage with these other important considerations here at Healthline Nutrition:
Red meats provide a lot of nutrients.
For example, 4 ounces (113 grams) of 80% lean ground beef provides (
- Calories: 287
- Protein: 19 grams
- Fat: 23 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Vitamin B12: 101% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Zinc: 43% of the DV
- Selenium: 31% of the DV
- Niacin (Vitamin B3): 30% of the DV
- Iron: 12% of the DV
However, all red meat is objectively nutritious in the sense that it provides protein, fat, and a variety of micronutrients. At the end of the day, the differences in nutritional composition between grass-fed and grain-fed beef are fairly small (
Highly processed meats, like bacon and sausages, have a more notably different nutritional profile than less processed cuts of meat. In particular, they are often very high in salt and contain other preservatives (
So, when examining the health effects of meat, it’s important to distinguish which kind of meat was included in any given study. Many studies on red meat may group together processed and unprocessed red meats, making it more difficult to parse out differences.
Red meat is very nutritious. It’s a great source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and other important nutrients.
The effects of red meat on health have been heavily studied.
However, most of these studies are observational, meaning that they’re designed to detect associations but cannot prove causation (cause and effect).
Observational studies tend to have confounding variables — factors other than the ones being studied that might be influencing the outcome variable (
For example, an observational study may find that people who eat a lot of red meat have worse health outcomes.
However, perhaps this group of people may be more likely to smoke, drink alcohol frequently, or engage in other behaviors that contribute to undesirable health effects compared with those who don’t eat red meat.
It’s impossible to control for all of these factors and determine if red meat is a “cause” of any health outcome. That limitation is important to keep in mind when reviewing the research and determining if red meat is something you’d like to incorporate into your regular diet.
Red meat and heart disease
Several observational studies show that red meat is associated with a greater risk of death, including from heart disease (
Nevertheless, it appears that not all red meat has the same health effects. Plus, it’s important to remember the limitations of observational studies.
A large study including 134,297 individuals found that high intake of processed meat (150 or more grams per week) was significantly associated with an increased risk of death and heart disease.
However, no association was found for unprocessed red meat consumption, even in amounts of 250 or more grams per week (
Randomized controlled trials — which are considered to be higher quality than observational studies — appear to support these results.
One review of controlled studies concluded that eating half a serving (1.25 ounces), or more of unprocessed red meat daily doesn’t adversely affect heart disease risk factors, such as blood lipids and blood pressure levels (
Overall, it’s unclear if, how, and why unprocessed or processed red meats are connected to heart disease. We need more high quality studies to help contextualize the data.
Red meat and cancer
Observational studies also show that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, especially colorectal and breast cancers (
Similar to the studies on heart disease, it appears that the type of meat makes a difference.
Consumption of processed red meats, like bacon and sausage, has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. This doesn’t appear to be true for unprocessed red meats (
What’s more, a review of studies found that high processed meat intake was associated with a larger increase in breast cancer risk compared with high unprocessed meat intake (
It’s not fully understood how processed meats increase the risk of certain cancers.
However, it’s thought that using nitrites to cure meat and smoking meats can produce carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. High heat cooking, such as grilling, may also create cancer-promoting compounds (
Some studies suggest there’s a link between red meat intake, heart disease, certain cancers, and death. Other studies suggest this only applies to processed meat. As such, more research is needed.
The way red meat is cooked also affects how it influences your health. When meat is cooked at a high temperature, it can form harmful compounds.
According to the National Cancer Institute, lab experiments suggest these compounds may change DNA and promote cancer development (
More research is needed, though.
- Use gentler cooking methods, like stewing and steaming, instead of grilling and frying.
- Minimize cooking at high heats and don’t expose your meat directly to a flame.
- Limit charred and smoked food. If your meat is burnt, cut away the charred pieces.
- If you must cook at a high heat, flip your meat frequently to prevent it from burning.
- Soak your meat in a marinade, like one made with honey and herbs, before cooking. Marinating may help decrease the formation of HCAs.
To prevent the formation of potentially harmful substances when cooking red meat, choose gentler cooking methods and avoid burning your meat.
Red meat appears to have health benefits and potential downsides.
Unprocessed red meat is highly nutritious and loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals that support bodily functions. But processed red meats, such as bacon and sausage, tend to be higher in salt and may contain preservatives that could have negative health effects.
Some observational studies link red meat consumption to higher risks of heart disease, certain cancers, and death. However, research shows that the type of red meat — and how it’s prepared — seems to influence how it affects health.
Overall, more research is needed into the effects of red meats on human health.
At the end of the day, whether you should eat red meat is personal. Red meat, especially unprocessed red meat, can be incorporated into a balanced diet.
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Try this today: Try a gentle way of cooking red meat by making a chili with ground beef. Add beans, tomatoes, other vegetables, seasonings, and broth. Simmer until it’s cooked through.